India: Students, workers resist attacks by Modi government, fascist thugs

January 17, 2020
JNU students protest violence outside New Delhi police headquarters on January 5.

Students, mostly from leftist unions, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi were brutally attacked on campus in an ambush led by a mob of right-wing thugs on January 5.

About 50–100 attackers wearing masks used crude weapons such as sticks, stones, iron bars and acid to assault and terrorise students on the campus and in dormitories. About 40 students and staff, including JNU Students’ Union President Aishe Ghosh, suffered injuries such as head trauma, acid burns and contusions from vicious beatings.

JNU, a prestigious university, is a bastion of intellectualism and left-wing discourse among Indian students. For the past month, left-wing student unions have been protesting the university’s fee hike that would make it difficult for poorer students to remain in campus dormitories. Fifty teachers and 200 students were holding one of these protests on campus when the violent attack began.

Although the Delhi police were called to the scene, they did not intervene to stop the attackers. Additionally, the university’s CCTV cameras were not functioning and street lights and electricity along the street leading to the university were turned off at the time of the attacks.

Many students, including those who were attacked, say the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation, affiliated to the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — was responsible for the attacks. The RSS was founded in 1925 and was heavily influenced by European fascist parties, including the Nazis in Germany. 

The Hindu Raksha Dal or Hindu Defense League, a right-wing group, is claiming its members were responsible for the attack, though there is evidence through WhatsApp messages that the attack can be traced back to the ABVP and RSS.

There have been no arrests of suspects thus far, despite one of the main attackers being identified in an India Today investigation. Akshat Awasthi, allegedly a ABVP member, confessed online to organising the attacks and claimed that the police encouraged the violence.

Instead, police are targeting left-wing students, including Aishe Ghosh, for vandalism. The BJP denied claims its party members or affiliates were responsible, and in turn blamed left-wing student groups.

Hours after the attacks, students at universities across India mobilised in protests of condemnation and solidarity with the students of JNU.  Hundreds of people from educational institutions across Mumbai began gathering at the Gateway of India from midnight on January 5, demanding that the police take action against the perpetrators. On January 6, more demonstrations were held in cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad to condemn the police inaction, fee hikes and the ongoing threat to secular democracy.

Citizenship Amendment Act

The violence at JNU was a vicious response by triggered Hindu nationalists to perceived “anti-national” discourse regarding BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) legislation.

Ongoing, widespread protests have been held all over India, especially by student groups, to repeal the anti-secular, anti-Muslim CAA, passed by the BJP on December 11, as well as the NRC. Students of prestigious institutions such as the Indian Statistical Institute, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, which rarely protest, joined universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), JNU and Delhi University in opposing the CAA and the NRC.

The CAA seeks to grant an expedited path to Indian citizenship to asylum seekers who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, and who belong to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, on the grounds of religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

It excludes Muslims and others from these countries, as well as Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Buddhist refugees from Tibet. The legality of the law is to be reviewed by the High Court as it goes against India’s secular constitution, which guarantees different religions equal treatment.

The NRC was first implemented in Assam and, if enacted across India, requires each Indian to prove their citizenship.

The exercise in Assam, which ended in August, left almost 2 million people, mostly Muslim, off Assam’s final list of citizens.

The burdensome cut-off date for documentation to prove citizenship was March 24, 1971 for Assam residents — the day before the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan erupted. It was an unfair burden on individuals who had to seek out records more than 48 years old, to prove their parents and grandparents had arrived prior to that date. This was especially difficult for women who did not hold property or voting records, who would have to prove a link to male family members. The government is now constructing 10 prison camps to house those who fail the appeals process.

Throughout December, spontaneous protests took place throughout India, with violent police brutality erupting at two historically Muslim universities, JMI and AMU. On December 15, the same day that more than 2000 students protested against the CAA and NRC, police barricaded the university and JMI protesters, beat them, fired tear gas at them, and forced the evacuation of the campus.

Lawyer Kabir Ali Zia Choudhari, representing the students, alleged in a statement on Twitter that police sexually assaulted students at Jamia, switching off the lights so as not to be caught on CCTV.  About 35 students were arrested, and more than 200 injured. Similar police brutality occurred at AMU, leaving dozens of students unaccounted for and more than 100 injured. Some injured students did not register their injuries in fear of being targeted by police at a later date.

Overall, protests took place in 14 out of India’s 28 states. Almost half of the protests resulted in violent police intervention. Ten states imposed a ban on protest or a curfew.  At least 31 people died. In the aftermath of the protest, 10 states are opposing or refusing to implement the CAA and NRC.

250 million workers strike

An estimated 250 million workers across India conducted the largest ever single-day general strike on January 8. The strike was called by 10 central trade unions in a declaration adopted at a September mass workers’ conference.  For 24 hours, there was a near total shutdown of services in nine states. Banking, finance sectors and schools were closed. Utility services, construction, contract, agricultural, plantation and other workers went on strike, blocked roads and stopped trains.

The workers demanded: an end to short-term labour contracts; a minimum wage increase; universal social security; the curbing of inflation and unemployment; the scrapping of hostile/anti-worker labour law changes; and a halt to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

The Modi government intends to sell off Air India, the Bharat Petroleum Corporation, the Shipping Corporation of India and the Container Corporation of India, which would cause hundreds of thousands of workers to lose their jobs.

Farmers and agricultural workers demanded better prices for produce, an increase in wages, complete debt forgiveness and reimbursement for the losses suffered by farmers in Kashmir due to the government’s lockdown, which severely affected the agricultural sector there.

Strikers also demanded that the government halt the CAA and NRC, end its attacks on minorities and anti-government protesters and stop undermining India’s constitutional provisions safeguarding democratic rights.

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